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No, You Don’t Own Your Arrangement of That Hit Song

[Note: A slightly edited version of this post has been published in Vol.35, No.9 of The Licensing Journal (Wolters Kluwer, October 2015)]

A guitarist contacted me recently. He creates arrangements of popular songs and puts the PDFs of the music for sale on his website. The first thing I asked him is whether he got permission from the copyright owners of the songs to post his arrangements, being pretty sure he hadn’t. He was quite surprised and disappointed when I told him that what he was doing was flat-out illegal. So many well-meaning musicians still either don’t know about, or don’t understand the concept of, derivative works.

Section 101 of the Copyright Act defines a derivative work as follows:

A “derivative work” is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications, which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a “derivative work”.

Note that “musical arrangement” is right near the top of the laundry list. And of course copyright mavens know that Section 106 sets forth the “bundle of rights” that a copyright owner possesses. These include the exclusive right to, or authorize others to, “prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work.”

So that means our guitarist, however well-intentioned, doesn’t “own” his arrangements of pop tunes and he can’t sell or even give away copies of them, whether they’re in the form of a lead sheet, guitar tabs, a fully scored chart or ancient runes – unless he gets permission from the copyright owner (More on that later).

But talking about derivative works and rights bundles of intangible property is kind of esoteric and doesn’t always convince wrongdoers of the error of their ways. So I’ll remind these folks that nobody would give a rodent’s posterior about “your” arrangement but for the fact that the song was written, recorded and made famous by someone else. So when you’re using somebody else’s music and trading off their art and good will, it’s only fair that you get their permission and give them a piece of the action.

But, my guitarist exclaimed, there’re all these other sites out there that do this – what about them? I explained that individual music publishers, as well as organizations like the Music Publishers Association, in conjunction with the National Music Publishers’ Association (yes, I know, it’s kind of like the People’s Front of Judea versus the Judean People’s Front for Life of Brian fans), have sent DMCA take down notices to many unlicensed sheet music, guitar tab and lyric sites. Simply because some infringing sites are still up doesn’t mean they won’t be taken down later or even sued for copyright infringement.

And as I’ll often explain, just because a rights holder doesn’t go after some infringers, it doesn’t mean they can’t go after you. It’s like complaining to the cop who pulls you over for speeding about all the other cars he could’ve pulled over and didn’t.

However, not “owning” an arrangement of a copyrighted musical work isn’t the end of the story. There are actually lots of things you can do without getting permission. For example, you can perform your version for your own amusement – or for that of your friends and relatives. Section 106 grants copyright owners only the exclusive right to public performances. That’s why it’s no infringement to sing in the shower – even if your private performances constitutes an aesthetic infraction. Copyright Act Section 101 defines a public performance as one at “a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.” The definition also includes broadcasts and streaming.

Our gutsy guitarist can even publicly perform his arrangement, provided the venue has licenses from the appropriate performing rights organizations (PROs), ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. PROs license venues to perform the songs in their respective repertoires and artists are free to perform their own renditions of the songs. So if our guitar guy gets a gig at a local club that’s properly licensed he’s good to go. [2017 update: a colleague contacted me regarding reliance upon PRO licenses for orchestral arrangements, as opposed to those performed just by members of a cover or tribute band. Even assuming the public performances are covered (and the ASCAP license has a specific restriction), the creation, copying and distribution of the sheet music to this derivative work to hired musicians would, as discussed below, require permission from the copyright owner, i.e., the music publisher.]

And our guitarist could even make and distribute a recording of his arrangement – provided that he gets a compulsory “mechanical” license under Section 115 of the Copyright Act or the equivalent either directly from the copyright owner(s), usually one or more music publishers, or The Harry Fox Agency (HFA). HFA is a clearinghouse many publishers use to issue mechanical licenses on their behalf. Since the license is compulsory, the copyright owner can’t say “no” so long as the recording artist (i.e., guitar guy), pays the statutory royalties, currently 9.1 cents per unit distributed for a recording of a song that’s five minutes or less.

The Section 115 license specifically allows artists doing cover recordings to record their own arrangements of the work:

A compulsory license includes the privilege of making a musical arrangement of the work to the extent necessary to conform it to the style or manner of interpretation of the performance involved, but the arrangement shall not change the basic melody or fundamental character of the work, and shall not be subject to protection as a derivative work under this title, except with the express consent of the copyright owner.

Minor variations in the melody are generally OK. As for what constitutes a change in the “fundamental character” of the song, that’s not clear except that it’s well established that you can’t change lyrics without permission.

However, the compulsory mechanical license only applies to audio-only recordings like CDs and MP3s. Our gutsy guitarist still couldn’t legally post a video of his performance or use his arrangement of the song in a movie, TV show, video game or other audio-visual work unless he got permission from the owner of the arranged song to do so. That permission is called “synchronization” or “synch” license, since you’re synching sound to picture. YouTube does have synch deals with some, but by no means all, of the music publishers.

But what if our guitarist actually wanted to get permission to print and distribute his arrangement of the song? He would need to contact the music publisher(s) of the work for permission. ASCAP, BMI and SESAC all have searchable databases and if you put in the title of the song you can usually find out who controls the rights to it as well as contact information for the publishers listed.

Armed with that information, our intrepid guitarist should then send a request, including a copy of the arrangement, to the “permissions” or “business affairs” department of the publisher who has the right to say yea or nay and to set the terms for the license to arrange. The process for getting a synch license (or clearing a sample, or reprinting lyrics) is much the same as getting permission to arrange. Find the publisher(s) on the PRO databases, and send a written request to the “business affairs” or “licensing” department explaining what you want to do and how much of the work you intend to use.

So in sum, while there are some things you can’t do without permission (e.g., sell sheet music or post videos), there’s still a lot you can do legally with an arrangement of a song – even though you don’t “own” it.

What’s Next for ASCAP and BMI as SESAC Buys The Harry Fox Agency?

A lot of people are wondering what it means for the music industry since it was reported that the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA), the leading trade organization for US music publishers, has sold its wholly-owned mechanical licensing subsidiary, The Harry Fox Agency, Inc. (HFA) to SESAC, Inc., the smallest of the three domestic music performing rights organizations (PROs). While I don’t have a crystal ball, I suspect that this strategic acquisition is part of the trend to transform PROs from mere licensors of performing rights to broader music rights and data mining clearing houses.

Published reports in Billboard and elsewhere state that SESAC’s winning bid of about $20 million over others, including PROs, BMI and SOCAN, was the culmination of a process that began a year ago when NMPA put HFA up for sale. As to why BMI, but not ASCAP was a bidder, it may have to do with the Consent Decrees under which the two organizations have operated for decades.

ASCAP’s Consent Decree (last amended in 2001) and BMI’s Consent Decree (last amended in 1994) are similar but far from identical. Specifically, under Article IV(A) of its Consent Decree, the only music right ASCAP is permitted to license is the  public performing right (although it can also serve as an agent to collect royalties from the sale of blank digital audio tape). BMI, under Section IV(B) of its Consent Decree is only specifically precluded from being a record label or a record or sheet music distributor.

That said, until recently, BMI traditionally refrained from entering other aspects of the music business, such as mechanical (songs used in audio-only recordings) and synchronization (songs used in audio-visual use in film, TV, video, etc.) licensing out of concern that the Department of Justice (DOJ) would seek to impose more stringent restrictions. However, this is one instance where the Internet really has changed everything, with ASCAP and BMI welcoming the ongoing DOJ review.

The revenue for licensed digital performances (e.g., streaming) is growing and the online environment knows no geographic boundaries. So while the traditional analysis focused on competition for domestic public performing rights among the three US PROs, foreign PROs, which often bundle performance and mechanical rights, have been creating competitive transnational alliances. And, as extensively discussed in the Copyright Office’s Music Licensing Report earlier this year, the major publishers (which are free to bundle all music rights) sought to withdraw digital performance rights from ASCAP and BMI because they felt Consent Decree and other legal restrictions (i.e., de facto compulsory licensing and statutory rate setting standards) artificially suppressed the fees these PROs could obtain from licensees such as streaming services.

However, the judges that oversee the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees held that such “partial withdrawals” were invalid. So, among other things, ASCAP and BMI are seeking modification of their Consent Decrees to allow partial withdrawal of digital rights and the bundling of various music licenses (e.g., performance, mechanical and synchronization). The Copyright Office Report supports relaxing the Consent Decree restrictions as well as amending the Copyright Act to have all licenses that are set by a tribunal (whether Rate Court or the Copyright Royalty Board) to be determined on a willing buyer/seller standard.

Conventional wisdom holds that DOJ is likely to relax ASCAP and BMI’s Consent Decree restrictions. SESAC doesn’t have a Consent Decree but has been subject to anti-competition litigation. What this means for the PROs is far from secret. Last year, at a public forum held by the Association of Independent Music Publishers (AIMP), the CEOs of the three PROs shared the stage and their thoughts about the future of their businesses. All three agreed that the future for the PROs is to offer efficient one-stop licensing for music users who often require several distinct music rights, including mechanicals currently offered by HFA (and music publishers who don’t license through HFA), synch rights which are controlled by each individual publisher, and even performing rights in sound recordings (currently licensed by SoundExchange), especially if such performing rights are statutorily extended to radio broadcasts, as endorsed in the Copyright Office’s Music Licensing Report. Indeed, the Report recommends that the PROs and other licensing collectives morph into broader “music rights organizations” (MROs).

And while SESAC is principally owned by a private equity firm, BMI probably had more than $20 million in its war chest to offer NMPA but didn’t. Why? ASCAP and BMI together represent north of 90% of US songwriters and music publishers. With HFA going to SESAC, that shifts the domestic competitive landscape, giving even more reason for DOJ to relax Consent Decree restrictions, which is probably more valuable to BMI. Moreover, even with mechanical income falling to about 21% of music publishing income from about double that at the peak of the CD market (and with overheads staying static or increasing due to processing millions of micro-payments, reason enough for NMPA to sell), the data HFA has regarding the 48,000 publishers it represents and the 6.7 million musical works it’s licensed on 21.4 million recordings, is probably more valuable to the much smaller SESAC than to BMI.

So what happens now? First, I don’t see SESAC significantly trying to grow its market share as a PRO. Their business model in that arena will likely continue to be, as it states on its web site, “a selective organization, taking pride in having a repertory based on quality, rather than quantity.” So I don’t see SESAC courting writers and publishers in a more concerted manner although adding HFA may make them a more viable alternative to ASCAP and BMI. In fact, I don’t foresee significant changes in writer-publisher relations at any of the three PROs.

Rather, I think that the game plan for all three PROs is what SESAC states in the news release posted on its web site:

SESAC’s acquisition of HFA is part of a previously announced strategy under its new leadership team to pursue a simplified and more efficient, multi-right, multi-territory licensing model utilizing an ongoing focus on information technology and data science to meet the developing needs of music users, distributors, writers, composers, publishers and other stakeholders. The transaction enables SESAC to enhance value by offering music streaming and other digital platforms greater efficiency and transparency in the music licensing process, thereby delivering better monetization outcomes for its affiliated writer and publisher clients.

As much bigger companies, ASCAP and BMI already have plenty of data, even without adding HFA’s to the mix. And reading between the lines (as was hinted at by the three CEOs at last year’s AIMP forum), lies the ancillary and potentially very lucrative business of mining, packaging and selling the vast stores of data the PROs collect to entities both inside and outside of the music industry, thus taking a page from the Google and Facebook playbooks.

If the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees are relaxed, then all three PROs can more freely pursue diversified business strategies. This could lead to higher performance royalties to writers and publishers through both more competitive negotiations and, by leveraging the data they collect, lower overheads – but potentially at the cost of control of “proprietary” information and transparency if the PROs expand beyond core music licensing businesses.

And there is also the risk that HFA, now to be owned by a for-profit privately held business as opposed to a trade organization controlled by its member music publishers, may impose higher tolls to access data and could potentially lead to less, rather than greater industry-wide licensing transparency. But the likelihood of this occurring will be diminished if ASCAP and BMI offer mechanical and other forms of licensing. And I don’t think SESAC will have HFA cease licensing ASCAP and BMI composers. That would be a bad business move, especially since SESAC will want to maintain as much current music data as possible.

Anyway, that’s how I see it. That said, the only certainty about the music business is that it’s always unpredictable.

Update: 14 September 2015:

It’s now been reported that the sale of HFA to SESAC has been approved by the NMPA Board and membership. The sale is now complete and SESAC now officially owns HFA.

Update: 1 October 2015:

It’s now been reported, quoting SESAC’s CEO, that up to 30% of HFA employees are being let go because of what is euphemistically called in HR-speak, “redundancies” between the SESAC and HFA staffs.

All You Need To Know About The Copyright Office’s 202-Page Music Licensing Report

On Friday, February 6, the Copyright Office issued a 202 page comprehensive report (plus appendices) on the music licensing business, “Copyright and the Music Marketplace.” The Report is the culmination of a nearly year-long process of soliciting and evaluating input from interested parties on how to fix what everybody agrees is a broken system.

Anyone with an interest in the music business should read the full report – or at least the 11-page executive summary. But in case even that’s too much, here’s all you need to know, in layman’s terms and with analysis, in little more than half the length of the executive summary:

The Report starts with four guiding principles:

– Music creators should be fairly compensated for their creations
– The licensing process should be more efficient
– Market participants should have access to authoritative data to identify and license sound recordings and musical works
– Usage and payment information should be transparent and accessible to rights holders.

Like Mom and apple pie – it’s kind of hard to argue with these. But before we get to the Report’s recommendations as to how to implement these principles, including four subsidiary principles, we need some background on the current music licensing framework. So instead of the Report’s 50-page primer (which is quite readable and mostly correct), here’s a roughly three-page summary of the current music licensing landscape, rocky as it is.

The Report is primarily concerned with the distribution of recorded music, whether through sales of physical product like CDs and downloads or public performances, whether over the radio or by streaming services on the Internet. This means that unless it’s a recording of public domain music, like Beethoven, most recordings consist of two distinct copyrights: (1) the copyright in the musical work, which is typically controlled by one or more music publishers; and (2) the copyright in the recording of that work, which is typically controlled by a record label. This is best illustrated with “cover” records. For example, I prefer the Carole King version of “You’ve Got a Friend” to James Taylor’s. Same song, two different recordings; two separate copyrights for each recording.

Let’s deal with the songwriter/publisher side first. ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are performing rights organizations (PROs) that license the public performing right (and only that right) in musical compositions (i.e., songs, but not the recordings of them) when they are performed live in stadiums, concert halls and clubs, broadcast on radio and TV or streamed over the Internet. PROs typically issue “blanket licenses” to users, meaning for a set fee (either a flat fee or percentage of the user’s revenue, depending upon the license), the user has an all-you-can-eat buffet of the music in that PRO’s repertoire allowing the user, such as a radio station, to play any song in the PRO’s catalog as often as it likes. The PROs pay 50% of the licensing revenue to the writers and 50% to the music publishers after deducting their operating costs.

ASCAP and BMI, according to the Report, represent more than 90% of the domestic music market while SESAC and another recently-formed entity represent most of the remainder. ASCAP and BMI (but not SESAC) have been operating under Department of Justice Consent Decrees since World War II. And they haven’t been amended since the dawn of the Internet. Think about that. These decrees were instituted to settle alleged anti-trust violations when 78s were the dominant recording format. Under DOJ regulations in place since 1979, most consent decrees are supposed to terminate within 10 years – not 75!

The Consent Decrees for ASCAP and BMI are overseen by two different federal judges in the New York City. When either PRO can’t reach an agreement as to a license fee either with an individual user (e.g., Pandora) or an entire industry (e.g., radio), the parties may have a “Rate Court” proceeding before the judge. Like all federal litigation,  a Rate Court case is very time consuming and costly. Both Consent Decrees state that the judge must determine a “reasonable” fee, which has been interpreted to approximate what a willing buyer and a willing seller would pay for a license in a free, open market.

Most important about these Consent Decrees is that they require ASCAP and BMI to grant a license to anyone who requests one, making the process a de facto compulsory license regime. What’s more, users often pay nothing – sometimes for months or even years at a time – while the parties either negotiate or litigate what a “reasonable” fee should be. Songwriters and publishers have long maintained that users, availing themselves of a compulsory license with the ability to use the “product” while negotiating a fee, are at a significant bargaining advantage.

Still sticking with songs (as opposed to recordings), when a song is covered by another artist, the Copyright Act provides the label with a compulsory license whereby the label pays a statutory rate to the owner of the song. This is how Carole King the songwriter gets paid for James Taylor’s cover recording. The statutory rate is currently set every five years by the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) in Washington, DC. This three-judge panel sets the fee, not based upon a market rate standard, but in accordance with a separate statutory provision requiring a “fair return” to the work’s creator, while balancing certain public policies, such as maximizing availability of works and minimizing a disruptive impact on businesses and industry practices. The Report indicates that this standard results in lower rates than a fair market standard. Although designed to be solely a license for cover recordings with first recording rights reserved to the copyright owner, most recording contracts have provisions tying the release and payment of all songs to the statutory scheme (often at a lower payment rate). Songwriters and publishers have long maintained that this compulsory scheme, as with performing rights, provides artificially low rates.

This statutory compulsory license (meaning music publishers and songwriters are subject to an “offer” they can’t refuse) is called a “mechanical” license due to the mechanical reproduction of the music and is a term dating back to the days of piano rolls when the license provision was first enacted. But the mechanical license applies solely to audio-only recordings – there is no compulsory license for film, TV, videos, games and other AV uses. Although many music publishers issue mechanical licenses directly, a licensing collective, the Harry Fox Agency (HFA), issues these licenses for probably more than half of the market. However, unlike the performing rights licenses issued by PROs, there are no “blanket” mechanical licenses and they are issued on a work-by-work basis, something that online music services find particularly inconvenient and impractical.

As for audio-visual uses, a “synchronization” (or “synch”) license is required from both the owners of the song and the recording of that song. So, if you want to use Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s recording of “Cheek to Cheek” in a movie, you need to get permission from Irving Berlin’s music publisher and also permission from the artists’ label for that particular recording of the standard. Synchronization licenses, unlike mechanical licenses, are typically negotiated and issued directly by the copyright owners, the labels and publishers.

The Report states that between public performance and mechanical income, about 75% of a songwriter’s (and therefore a music publisher’s) income is subject to government regulation (compare that to a novelist whose income isn’t regulated at all). So, that means that the majority of a songwriter’s income can be determined by four judges – one in New York and three in DC. By contrast, a label’s income (and therefore a recording artist’s income) consists mostly of sales of recordings (e.g., CDs and downloads) and licensing of those recordings, such as “synchronization” usage as discussed above. There are no compulsory licenses or consent decrees for these uses so it’s a pure, free market negotiation between labels and users for these rights. And music publishers, who can negotiate synch licenses in a free market unshackled by consent decrees and compulsory licenses, are usually able to get about the same fee for their rights as the label gets for theirs.

But not all restrictions disadvantage the songwriter. With respect to performances, the United States, except in very limited circumstances discussed below, does not grant a public performing right in a sound recording. For example, when Sinatra’s recording of “New York, New York” is played on oldies radio (or over loudspeakers at Yankees games), the songwriters, Kander & Ebb, and their music publisher, get paid through their PRO. What do Sinatra’s heirs and his label get? Nothing! As the Report points out, the United States is one of less than a handful of industrialized nations, including Iran and North Korea, which do not have a public performing right in a sound recording for radio.

Why? There are historical reasons in that the radio stations felt that they were providing the labels with promotion for the sale of recordings. Also, every Congressional district has at least one or more radio and/or TV stations. As the Report points out, with the recent shift in consumer preferences from purchases (e.g., CDs and downloads) to streaming (e.g. YouTube), the promotional value of radio probably isn’t what it used to be.

However, because of laws enacted in the 1990s, there is a limited public performing right in a sound recording for digital transmissions, basically, streaming over the Internet, whether through YouTube, Spotify, Pandora or another service. And there is a compulsory license for non-interactive streaming services, which like the mechanical license, has a rate that’s determined by the CRB. The royalties for the compulsory streaming licenses are administered by a collective that’s similar to the PROs, SoundExchange, which distributes this income to labels (50%), featured artists (45%) and side artists (5%). As for “interactive services” (and the Report spills much ink over the lengthy statutory provisions about what is and is not “interactive”), these license fees are determined in market negotiations by the parties.

Our discussion began with the notion that there are two copyrights in a recording: one in the underlying song and one in the actual recording or “master.” However, for historical reasons, recordings that were made prior to 1972 are not covered by the federal Copyright Act, unlike the songs embodied in them. Rather, these recordings, which are still purchased and performed all the time, are governed by state law.

Recent well-publicized lawsuits in New York and California have determined that, at least in those two states (and likely in many others), there is a state-based public performance right in a sound recording, the contours of which remain largely unknown. For example, it’s possible that in some states, this performing right for pre-1972 recordings could be even broader than the one granted under federal law for later recordings in that there conceivably could be a performing right in the older recordings played over the radio under various state, but not federal laws. This could lead to a quagmire of uncertain and inconsistent  treatment.

The Report also contains a lengthy discussion of recent ASCAP and BMI Rate Court decisions, both of which held that publishers could not partially withdraw certain rights from ASCAP and BMI while leaving others. For example, Sony/ATV, one of the three major publishers, felt that it could negotiate better deals regarding digital performances than what it could get through ASCAP and BMI because of the constraints imposed on those PROs by the Consent Decrees. Reaching the same conclusion albeit under slightly different reasoning, both the ASCAP and BMI Rate Court judges determined that a publisher had to be either “all in” or “all out” and that it couldn’t cherry pick certain aspects of the performing right. These decisions figure prominently in the Report’s recommendations.

Why would a major publisher feel they could get a better deal by itself? As we’ve seen in the synch license arena, where there’s a free market, song copyright owners get paid about the same as recording copyright owners in most instances. Contrast that to the download situation where the publisher gets paid 9.1 cents for the download (the compulsory statutory rate) while the label gets about 70% of the sale price on iTunes (a market negotiation).

The Report also contains lengthy and detailed descriptions of the lack of uniformity in data associated with both musical works and sound recordings. Without going into detail about ISWCs, ISRCs, ISNIs and DDEX standards, suffice to say there is currently no consistent, uniform, international process for assigning codes to musical compositions, albums or individual tracks, writers or artists. And there’s no centralized database for this necessary information. This leads to inefficiencies and delayed licensing and payment for creators.

*******

With the foregoing background, here are the Copyright Office’s four subsidiary principles regarding implementation of their four Guiding Principles:

– Government licensing should aspire to treat like uses of music alike
– Government supervision should enable voluntary transactions while supporting collective solutions
– Rate-setting and enforcement of anti-trust laws should be separately managed and addressed
– A single market-oriented rate-setting standard should apply to all music uses under statutory licenses

So now let’s look at the Report’s most significant recommendations to implement its eight principles:

– Regulate musical works and sound recordings in a more consistent manner. (As we’ve seen, song and master recording rights are often treated differently, with more restrictions on songwriters and publishers than on recording artists and labels.)
– Extend the public performance right for recordings to traditional “terrestrial” radio. (This fosters the first goal and the Report recommends that non-interactive radio be subject to the same compulsory license scheme as are non-interactive streams.)
– In keeping with similar treatment for similar rights, the Report also recommends full federal copyright protection for pre-1972 recordings. (Besides being fair to older artists, this avoids the potential legal chaos discussed above).
– The Copyright Office further suggests that all rate-setting for both recordings and the underlying musical works should (a) be subject to the same “willing-buyer / willing seller” or “fair market value” standard and (b) that all rate setting, even for music performance rights, should be done by the CRB. (This would remove rate-setting for music performance rights from a single, life-tenured federal judge in New York and place it before a tribunal with a specific mandate and expertise. It also fosters the goal of uniform treatment for songs and records.)
– The Report also states that the CRB should only meet as needed and that procedures for setting interim rates, as well as for the overall process, should be streamlined. (This should foster voluntary negotiations and make rate-setting proceedings faster and cheaper).
– The Report also suggests that detailed provisions, such as what constitutes an interactive streaming service, should be put into regulations rather than in the copyright statute, so that they can be more easily modified to adjust to changes in the marketplace.
– The Report stopped short of stating that the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees should be repealed. (This position is undoubtedly in deference to the Justice Department’s ongoing review of those decrees, but is clearly supportive of relaxing restrictions, as discussed below.)
– Allow for audit rights under the compulsory mechanical license and allow SoundExchange to terminate licensees who avail themselves of a compulsory license but do not pay. (These are obvious legal loopholes that need to be plugged. If creators are subjected to a compulsory licensing regime, they should at least have the ability to ensure they’re being properly paid and that deadbeats don’t keep the benefits of the license).

The Report also recommended that, as the Copyright Office had previously, licensing collectives be permitted to expand their role and become Music Rights Organizations (MROs) that would license both performing and mechanical rights and possibly other rights as well. ASCAP’s Consent Decree forbids it from licensing mechanicals and other rights and BMI has voluntarily refrained from doing so to date. However, the CEOs of both organizations have indicated that expansion of their licensing capabilities is in their business plans and users should welcome the availability of multi-use licenses.

For example, if ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, Harry Fox and Sound Exchange all became MROs and licensed performing rights and mechanical rights, there would be six MROs competing for business. The Report also recommended congressional overrule of the Rate Court decisions, to the extent of allowing publishers to withdraw digital rights for interactive streaming so that publishers are on parity with the labels in the ability to negotiate for these rights. Although not mentioned in the Report, I think that the MROs should also be able to license the posting of lyrics, as HFA currently offers this service. The PROs and HFA currently allow for a music publisher to issue a direct license and not go through the collective. This should be maintained to both ensure free competition and allow copyright owners to handle individual negotiations where warranted.

If there are six competing MROs offering a variety of bundled licensing services, which would include the right to withdraw certain rights and directly license all rights, it would seem that the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees would not be needed (at least not in their present form) as there would be ample competition. As the Report indicated, there are currently only three major labels and three major publishers. They aren’t subject to Consent Decrees. While the US currently has three PROs, most other nations have only one, and that PRO often is able to bundle mechanical rights. The time has come to recognize that the public doesn’t need excessive government protection from the collective licensing by songwriters.

The Report also recommended that membership in MROs be mandatory and that there be a “general” MRO, the GMRO that would act as a stop-gap for certain unrepresented parties and would standardize data formats and create a global rights database for users. I believe neither mandatory membership in a MRO (given that membership in licensing collectives is currently voluntary), nor the creation of a GMRO, another level of governmental involvement, is necessary. First, if a MRO were able to offer more comprehensive services and there was competition for members, there would be enough incentive for all writers, publishers, artists and labels to join one.

Second, as the Report acknowledges, the various interested parties, including the PROs, have been working on various projects to facilitate the uniformity and transparency of data. If, for example, the PROs were to offer mechanical licensing, they would be strongly incentivized to synch their works registrations with recording and artist information. Similarly, if HFA were to offer performing rights, they would be incentivized to ensure that their recording information is coordinated with works information. Third, with MROs having both data for songs and recordings, they could create an aggregate portal for users to look up who controls which rights to songs and recordings. Finally, I also don’t think that a GMRO is necessary to address the problem of unlicensed or unaccounted for shares in works and other missing data. The MROs can license based upon partial representation and hold reserves until such time other interested parties properly register their works and shares.

The Report attempts to address the issue of transparency of licensing and royalty information. Standardizing works and recording codes will help. So will the elimination of the “pass through” mechanical license for downloads in that publishers have to be paid through the labels and not directly by the download services like iTunes. And while the issue was raised regarding equity stakes in and advances from, streaming services like Pandora, no real solutions regarding creators sharing in the wealth were offered. Similarly, the Report alluded to the “whack-a-mole” problem under the DMCA of dealing with rampant infringement on services like YouTube but did not offer any recommendations, an area where the balance between the services and creators, especially individual artists, should be adjusted .

Although the Copyright Office had previously suggested that the compulsory mechanical license be repealed, the Report stops short of advocating it. Instead, it suggests that publishers have limited opt-out rights for interactive streaming and downloads. It further recommends that mechanical licensing should be done on a blanket license basis, like the PROs. The Report’s recommendation that an artist may obtain a compulsory license for a cover recording released as a CD but not as a download makes no sense to me as it is a needless discrimination in format (e.g., LP versus cassettes in the analog world) rather than means of distribution (e.g., purchases versus performances).

I also believe that the song-by-song mechanical license should still be available as an option. For example, an artist making a self-produced recording that include covers should be able to obtain only the licenses needed. And those licenses should be available for both physical copies and downloads. Finally, I think that if the mechanical licensing regime remains compulsory, the CRB should set rates for different tiers of usage. Three should suffice. In the synch market, for example, a Rolling Stones song will command a higher fee than one by an unknown writer. The publisher can select which tier it wants its song priced at and if the user market balks, the publisher can then change to a lower tier.

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In sum, the Report offers some solid recommendations as to changes to the legal and regulatory aspects of music licensing. Other suggestions such as creating a new agency, the GMRO, and mandating coding standards are probably unnecessary if private parties are better incentivized through revised laws and regulations. But the Report contains far more detail and nuances, both regarding the current licensing landscape and its recommendations, than can be covered in my brief summary. Songwriters and composers, whose income is currently regulated the most, would likely benefit most from the Report’s recommendations, although recording artists could also receive a significant boost to their income with the adoption of a performing right for radio and TV airplay.

Undoubtedly, major players in the user community, such as streaming services, will object to some of the proposed changes to the music licensing landscape, such as relaxing Consent Decree restrictions and having all compulsory licenses subject to a fair market standard. However, as the Report points out, music creators should not have to subsidize any particular business model. But as the Report also notes, it is ultimately up to Congress, rather than the Copyright Office or the Justice Department to make most of the needed changes. Given Congress’ recent history, it’s hard to be optimistic about legislative fixes happening anytime soon. But one can hope….

Pubs and PROs: Making Sure Your Live Gig is Properly Licensed

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine called to pick my brain about music licensing. She lives in an old town in the Hudson Valley that has a burgeoning music and arts scene. She’s a jazz singer and, possessing an entrepreneurial bent, she produced a series of live jazz concerts at a local restaurant. Given that her day job is in publicity and marketing, it wasn’t surprising the performances were well attended — and well received. Everyone, my friend, the performers, the restaurant owner and the patrons, seemed happy.

Then my friend told me that the restaurant started getting phone calls and letters from the three performing rights organizations (PROs), ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. For the uninitiated, PROs license the right of public performance in copyrighted (i.e., non-public domain) musical works, a right granted under the US Copyright Act. More specifically, they license “non-dramatic” rights, so musicals, operas, ballets and other “dramatic” works aren’t works that the PROs license (although individual songs from such works often are – yes, this can get complicated). PROs license radio and TV stations, web sites, arenas, concert halls, nightclubs and, more to the point, bars, restaurants and other similar establishments where music is performed. While there are certain exemptions for having to pay for using recorded music under very limited circumstances, where a restaurant or bar is playing live music, the PRO piper must be paid.

Now, the three PROs each do the same thing, albeit in slightly different ways and some songwriters will prefer one over the others. Think of them as Ford, Chevy and Dodge. They issue “blanket” licenses to licensees, such as a restaurant or club, which entitles the licensee to play any or all of the songs in that PRO’s repertoire however often it likes, all for a set fee based upon the establishment’s music usage. It’s kind of like buying a ticket to an all-you-can eat buffet. But, the key is no one PRO has a majority of the popular repertoire in any genre, so a venue frequently has to take a license from all three of them. But that’s still way more efficient than trying to get individual licenses from the owners of dozens, if not hundreds, of songs.

As an aside, my friend mentioned that one of the musicians said that he was a member of ASCAP and that therefore he could perform all the music that ASCAP licenses, kind of a gratis blanket license. I said that wasn’t quite correct. The PROs obtain “non-exclusive” rights from their members. So, if a musician is performing his own songs, he can do so freely without the venue having to take a license. But, that doesn’t mean he can license public performances of songs by Jerome Kern, Thelonious Monk, or Bob Dylan, writers, represented by ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, respectively.

As someone who once was a legal beagle at BMI as a card-carrying member of the “copyright police” who would prosecute infringement actions against venues that performed music – and it was always live music we went after and only after numerous attempts to get the owners to take a license– I know that the staffs at the PROs are doing their best to collect the public performance royalties the songwriters are entitled to under federal law so that they can earn a living, pay their bills and continue to write the music we want to hear.

My friend said that even though the owner was happy to have the live music, he didn’t want to pay for the licenses. I suggested that they have a cover charge, a portion of which would go to the owner to pay for the licenses over time, and the rest to the performers. She said that neither she nor the owner wanted to do that as many patrons simply wanted to have a meal and might go elsewhere if there were a music charge. I then suggested that she continue to do what she’s done (as is common in many clubs) that instead of a cover charge, she passes the hat around to the patrons who make voluntary contributions to the musicians but, as with a cover charge, a certain percentage would go to the restaurant off the top to pay for the licenses over time and the rest would go to the musicians.

In fact, I suggested that this could even be a selling point in that she make a short announcement, including a suggested donation amount, stressing that they’re doing the right thing to ensure that not only the performers of the music, but the people who wrote the music, get paid their due. She thought it was a great idea. Unfortunately, the restaurant owner didn’t. So, when I followed up about a week after making my brilliant suggestion, my friend said that she was going to stop being an impresario for the time being.

That made me sad. The PROs want music to be performed. They’re not in the business of saying “no,” but the writers they represent are entitled by law to be paid. So, it’s a major bummer when musicians lose a gig because the owner doesn’t want to pay the freight. But what can my enterprising friend do?

Here’s one possibility: There are lots of venues, bars, clubs, etc. that regularly perform live music and have licenses from the PROs. That’s a sunk cost for them. She might find a venue where they don’t have music at a particular time (e.g., 6pm as most shows don’t start until 9pm) or a night such as a Sunday or Monday when the place is silent. Maybe the atmosphere won’t be ideal, but the owner can maximize the value of the license it’s already paying for (although the fees are somewhat calculated based upon how many nights the venue has live music).

The venue might also see it as an opportunity to experiment with other genres, such as an early set of jazz and standards at a place that typically plays covers of classic rock or country and thereby increase its customer base. Because the PROs want their licensees to get maximum value for their license fees (so that they’ll continue to pay and have music), the General Licensing departments of the PROs could actually be a resource to suggest venues for that kind of situation.

I’m curious to know if any of you have any other suggestions for my friend. And if you’re curious about how and why ASCAP, BMI and SESAC license bars, restaurants and clubs (what they refer to as “General Licensing”), please click here, here and here. And you might also read my post about how the CEOs of the PROs feel about upcoming challenges and opportunities for their business.

A Peek from the Peaks of the PROs: the ASCAP, BMI and SESAC CEOs Speak

Yesterday, the Association of Independent Music Publishers (AIMP) sponsored a luncheon where veteran entertainment lawyer Bob Donnelly interviewed the CEOs of the three performing rights organizations (PROs): ASCAP’s John LoFrumento, BMI’s Mike O’Neill and SESAC’s Pat Collins. The meeting took place before a packed house in the performance space at the barbecue joint, Hill Country, in Manhattan and it was the heads of the organizations, rather than any of the musicians they represent, who took the stage for a discussion that lasted about 90 minutes.

Rather than having a panel discussion, Donnelly interviewed each leader separately while the other two left the room, supposedly to avoid any possibility of collusion. O’Neill, who spoke last, joked that he LoFrumento had a nice chat while Collins was interviewed. And after the meeting, a senior BMI executive confirmed to me that the theatrics were not legally required and further stated that “if I were going to collude with ASCAP I wouldn’t do it in front of the entire music industry.”

Topics included the Department of Justice (DOJ) review of the ASCAP and BMI Consent decrees and the proposed Songwriter Equity Act, subjects I’ve previously written about here and here. The ASCAP and BMI Rate Court proceedings with Pandora were also a major topic of discussion as was the development of the MusicMark portal for registering works.

Much ink has been spilled over the Pandora decisions in the ASCAP and BMI Rate Courts, entities I’ve previously discussed. In short, both Rate Court judges largely sided with Pandora, with LoFrumento noting that all of ASCAP’s proposed rate-setting benchmarks were rejected by Judge Cote and O’Neill discussing BMI’s similar fate. One of the central issues in both cases was the ability of a publisher to withdraw certain digital rights from the PROs and license them to users directly while remaining a member of the particular PRO for all other uses, such as terrestrial broadcast and live performances. Both Judges said “no” with O’Neill stressing that the ASCAP judge said the publishers were “all in” while the BMI judge said that the publishers would be “all out,” meaning none of their repertoire would be covered by a BMI license if they withdrew. Both cases are on appeal.

The attempts by major publishers such as Sony/ATV to withdraw digital rights and do deals directly with licensees could have a significant impact on PRO revenues and the ability for independent publishers to obtain comparable terms. That said, the consensus was that partial withdrawal of rights should be permitted, instead of the Rate Court rulings of “all in” or “all out” as this flexibility fosters competition. Regarding withdrawal, Donnelly asked both LoFrumento and O’Neill what would happen if a publisher were to withdraw rights but the writer did not. Both were equivocal, with O’Neill elaborating that the situation would require a case-by case evaluation of many factors, including provisions in the publisher and writer contracts and the status of any advances.

In the discussion of the Rate Court Proceedings, the Songwriter Equity Act and the DOJ Consent Decree Review, all three leaders stressed that the rules for music licensing (emphasizing performance, but including mechanicals) need to be changed from current benchmarks to market rates, with consideration of what a willing buyer and seller would negotiate as the appropriate rate-setting inquiry. All maintained that the current rate-setting system has significantly undervalued music for decades.

LoFrumento, Collins and O’Neill were all in favor of scrapping the ASCAP and BMI Rate Courts, which lead to very lengthy and costly litigation, and replacing them with arbitration. For example, LoFrumento stated that 10% of ASCAP’s costs are paid to outside counsel. The CEOs favor a three-member arbitration panel whose members would have music industry expertise and would serve limited terms, unlike Rate Court judges who serve indefinitely.

Given the discussion of Consent Decree reform, competition was a theme throughout the discussion. When asked about SESAC being at a disadvantage because, unlike ASCAP and BMI, it has to earn a profit for its private equity owners, Collins stated that they, like all private companies, have to compete and that “nobody joins SESAC to be paid less.” However, he conceded that unlike ASCAP and BMI, SESAC does not disclose what percentage of their revenue is paid to writers and publishers. And O’Neill, when asked about Irving Azoff’s new venture that includes licensing performing rights, chuckled and replied: “Competition is good no matter what, even if it’s bad.” He went on to say that BMI started as a competitor to ASCAP and that competition made both companies stronger.

The three leaders all seemed to agree that the future for the PROs is for each to be an efficient portal for licensees, a one-stop shop for music users. This would entail some form of bundling of music rights ( e.g., mechanical and synch rights, in addition to performing rights) which would need to be allowed under the Consent Decrees. They also indicated that while technology continues to allow for movement from sampling to a census of performances, some areas, such as “general licensing” including payment on performances in clubs, do not lend themselves to a census.

With regard to creating a more efficient environment, both LoFrumento and O’Neill touted their collaboration with SOCAN on MusicMark, a portal which allows publishers to register works only once if they use common works registration or electronic batch registration formats and those works will be registered with all three organizations. MusicMark, however, is not being built as a hub for licensing, which would still be done separately by each of the PROs.

When asked why SOCAN, rather than SESAC was an initial collaborator, O’Neill replied that SOCAN, unlike SESAC, already has both ASCAP and BMI data and they were the logical partner to help reconcile the data. LoFrumento stated he expects MusicMark to be operational in 2015 and the goal is to create a hub where others, including SESAC, HFA and CMRRA could participate. When asked if SESAC plans to join, Collins stated “we applaud the initiative and have an interest in being part of it and we’ll see how it goes but we’re not part of it today.”

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Regardless of what type or genre of music one writes, income from public performances has always been, and continues to be, a critical component of any composer’s income. All composers should be aware of the continuing market, legislative and legal challenges the PROs face – and the entities that are posing these challenges to their ability to earn a living. It’s not often that the CEOs of all three PROs share the same stage – even if not at the same time – and the fact that each of them sees becoming a one-stop for a variety of music rights licenses as critical to their future success is something worth noting.

Artists and Labels Paid for Radio Airplay?

Composers know that they should sign up with a Performing Rights Organization (PRO) such as ASCAP, BMI and SESAC to make sure they receive royalties for when their works are publicly performed in live performance venues, when broadcast on radio or TV or streamed over the Internet. Most people don’t realize, however, that when a work is played over the radio in the US, the writers and publishers of the composition receive payment for the performance through the PROs but the recording artists and record labels don’t receive a dime. So, whenever a radio station played Frank Sinatra’s recording of “New York, New York”, Kander & Ebb and their publisher got paid, but Ol’ Blue Eyes and Reprise Records did not.

In most other countries, there is a public performing right in a sound recording, but not in the US. There have been attempts over the years to fix this inequity. For example, since 1995, as amended in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA), there has been a limited public performing right in a sound recording. But, it only applies to “digital transmissions” which basically constitutes streaming over the Internet. SoundExchange was formed to act as a licensing collective, like the PROs, for this growing revenue stream and they pay artists and labels.

Last month, however, something occurred that may be a step in the right direction. Clear Channel, which owns 850 radio stations, and Warner Music Group, one of the industry’s major labels, announced a private deal where Clear Channel will pay public performance royalties to Warner and their recording artists. Clear Channel, apparently, will get a more favorable rate with respect to online streaming, which if you have been following what has been going on with Pandora’s continuing lobbying of Congress to reduce the rates they pay, has been an ongoing battle between webcasters and publishers and labels. Warner, in return, will receive promotion from Clear Channel, which likely means increased airplay, for their artists.

Is this a good thing? Paying artists and labels for the public performance of their recordings is certainly a step in the right direction toward aligning the US with the rest of the world. But at what cost? In exchange for increased exposure on Clear Channel stations, royalty rates for streaming are being nearly cut in half. And unlike the situation with SoundExchange, artists are not directly paid, but will be paid by the label. What is perhaps of even greater concern, however, is that this is a private deal between two industry giants. It remains to be seen whether this will deal set a precedent that will eventually enable all recording artists and labels (including indie, and artist-produced recordings) to collect public performance royalties. It probably won’t happen soon. A Congressional bill that would have given labels and artists a public performing right akin to what composers and publishers have long enjoyed died in committee in 2009. But one can hope – and lobby your local Congressman.

Update: On September 30, right before the government shut down, Rep. Melvin L. Watt (D-NC), introduced H.R. 3219, the Free Market Royalty Act, which would among other things create a public performance right in sound recordings when played on AM or FM radio.

This article was originally published in September 2013 on the ScoreStreet web site.

Happy Birthday, You’re Sued!

The mere filing of a copyright case doesn’t usually make a major splash in the media but when it involves the most performed song in the world, even The New York Times takes notice.  Apparently, filmmaker, Jennifer Nelson, was making a documentary about the song, “Happy Birthday to You” and didn’t like the idea that Warner/Chappell Music insisted on her taking a $1500 license to use the song in the film as she – and probably most people – think it’s in the public domain.  So yesterday, Ms. Nelson filed a birthday suit of sorts: an action in federal court seeking a declaratory judgment that the song is, in fact, in the public domain and no permission is needed to use it.

So, in little more than the time it takes to sing the song, I’m going to use it as a way to review a few basic copyright law principles that are sometimes misunderstood. Let the questions begin!

What is the public domain? The public domain is the body of works, music, novels, plays, texts, etc., that is no longer (or never was) protected by copyright and is therefore free for anyone to use or adapt.

When is a song in the public domain? As they say in Facebook status land, “it’s complicated.”  For songs written since 1978, a U.S. copyright lasts for the life of the author (or last surviving author if there’s more than one) plus seventy years. If there’s no author, such as a work-for-hire, the term is 95 years. For older works, the U.S. used to have a system of an initial term and then the copyright had to be renewed for, you guessed it, the “renewal term.” For these older copyrights, the initial term was 28 years and the renewal term, through various extensions, was increased to 67 years, for a total of 95 years.  There’s more to it than this, but basically, if a work was written prior to 1923, it’s most likely in the public domain here. Maybe you’re thinking that’s an awfully long time when the Constitution says that copyrights are supposed to be “for limited times.” Larry Lessig thought so when he challenged the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act but the U.S. Supreme Court strongly disagreed.

Do I need to get a license to sing “Happy Birthday to You” to my kid at my backyard barbecue? Even assuming the song is still under copyright – and as we’ll soon see that’s a big assumption – the answer is still “no.” U.S. Copyright law gives copyright owners a certain bundle of rights. Among them is the exclusive right to authorize “public performances.” A backyard barbecue, a birthday party in your basement and most other gatherings among “a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances” is a private performance for which no permission is needed.

What if I sing the song at a gig or at a party of 500 of my closest friends and acquaintances? You’re probably safe to sing the song – or any other copyrighted song. Most public venues where music is performed (concert and catering halls, clubs and stadiums) or broadcast (TV and radio stations) have licenses from “performing rights organizations” such as ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. These companies issue “blanket” licenses to venues and broadcasters (and web sites, too) which allow the licensee to perform all the works in their respective repertories as much as they want.

Why would a filmmaker need a license? The permission that Warner/Chappell sought from Ms. Nelson for her film is known as a “synchronization” or “synch” license because the user is synchronizing music to picture. Whenever a pre-existing copyrighted song is used in any audio-visual work, such as a film, TV show, TV ad or videogame, a synchronization license is required from the copyright owner, usually a music publisher. If you’re using pre-recorded music, then you need permission from both the music publisher of the song and the copyright owner of the recording, typically a record label.

What if I post a video of my kid dancing to a Justin Bieber song? Putting aside issues of taste, technically, you’d need synch licenses from the music publisher(s) of the song and from The Bieb’s label although the actual performance of the video may be covered if the site has licenses from the performing rights organizations. As a practical matter, unless your home video is generating millions of views or you’re selling truckloads of DVDs it’s unlikely that anyone will come after you for a technical violation.

So, is “Happy Birthday to You” in the public domain? That’s for the court to decide, but if the facts are as alleged in the complaint and as cited in the  news reports and elsewhere, it seems that the song would be “PD” as we music types say.  The melody is said to come from a song called “Good Morning to All” written in 1893 and, the combination of music and lyrics is said to have appeared in print in 1912, possibly earlier. By my reckoning, if these are the facts, both 1912 and 1893 are prior to 1923. At least one legal scholar, Richard Brauneis, has written a 68-page article (with 320 footnotes!) in which he concludes that the song is in the public domain.

How can Warner / Chappell claim the song is still under copyright? Again, the facts will play out in the lawsuit, but it seems that W/C has a 1935 copyright registration, crediting different writers as the creators of the song. The complaint alleges that this registration is for a piano /vocal arrangement of the song.  Another of the things in the “bundle of rights” a copyright owner gets is the right to make a “derivative work” of the underlying work, such as an arrangement or adaptation. Turning a novel into a film constitutes making a derivative work, which is why the novelist gets paid when the film is made.

For example, the song “Simple Gifts” is a Shaker hymn from the nineteenth century.  Most people know it from Aaron Copland’s arrangement of the tune in his ballet, “Appalachian Spring.” As the original song is PD, anyone can perform the original melody and lyrics or make their own arrangement. But, if you want to use Mr. Copland’s treatment of the work you’ll need permission from Copland’s publisher, Boosey & Hawkes.  So, if the underlying song, “Happy Birthday to You” turns out to be in the public domain, anyone can use it and make their own arrangement of it, as long as they don’t use any particular copyrighted arrangement of the work, such as ones owned by Warner / Chappell.  And, of course, you can write a new song, with your own melody and lyrics, and call it “Happy Birthday to You” as titles are not copyrightable.

Getting Permission to Use Copyrighted Texts in Musical Works

For those of you who read my articles on the commissioning process, you’ll recall that one of the things a commissioning contract will typically contain is a clause stating that you’ve cleared the rights to any copyrighted text or music you use in your work. Music publishers put similar clauses their writer agreements and labels have them in their artist contracts, too.

Let’s say you’re a composer and you want to set a text by your favorite poet. If your selected sonneteer happens to be Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning or some other person who’s been dead for several hundred years, then there’s no problem since their works are in the public domain. But what if the versifier of choice is only more recently deceased or even happens to be a living, breathing writer like you? Then you’ll need permission to use the poem. Why? Because their works are still under copyright. Setting a copyrighted text to music constitutes making a “derivative work” of that text and the Copyright Act gives the copyright owner the exclusive right to do that in Section 106. And trust me, you can’t claim “fair use” if you use a whole stanza, let alone an entire poem, for the text of your composition.

You’ll always want to get permission before you write that magnum opus. If you write the piece first, especially if it’s a large-scale commissioned work like a song cycle for tenor and orchestra, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself in deep doo doo if the copyright owner of your chosen text just says “no,” which they have every right to do. Weeks or months of precious writing time will be wasted and you’ll undoubtedly miss the delivery deadline under your commissioning agreement. Even if you can get permission, the rights holder will be able to drive a very hard bargain on the price and may even demand a piece of the copyright to your work if they know you’ve already written your masterpiece around their poem.

So whose door do you go knocking on? It could be a publisher or a literary agent. Start with the copyright page at the front of the anthology that contains the text. Send a short, polite note to the permissions department of publisher listed for the text, explaining who you are and what kind of kind of work you wish to write. Also ask the publisher to refer you to the appropriate rights holder if they aren’t it.

As for the specific rights you’ll need, these include the right to perform your work indefinitely, to have printed music made available and to be able to record the work, both in sound recordings and in audiovisual works. You’d be amazed how often composers, thinking only about the premiere, will only get the right to perform the work for a short time and neglect to obtain, or even ask for, the necessary publication and recording rights.

You’ll also need patience and persistence. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months of follow-up emails and voicemails to get a response and then negotiate a deal once you get to the proper rights holder. Don’t pester and always be polite. Otherwise, you’ll guarantee a slow — and negative — response.

The publisher of the text will want an appropriate copyright notice in any concert programs, printed music or recordings. Although they’ll sometimes insist upon a portion of the writer’s share of royalties (i.e., income), you should avoid giving them a share of the copyright (i.e., ownership) in your work. Flat-fee buyouts in the range of $500-$1,500 are common, especially for choral works written for the educational market, although these fees can range from nominal (e.g., $50) to enormous ($5,000).

The process is very similar if you want to use a quotation of a copyrighted musical work. Start by contacting the business affairs department of the music publisher for the work. If you don’t know who the publisher is, you can search on the website of the appropriate performing right organization. ASCAP, BMI and SESAC all have searchable online databases for their repertoire.

An earlier version of this article was published on BMI’s Songwriter 101 web site on October 8, 2010.